Hasty Wake County drivers now have an additional reason to obey school bus stop signs and lights: Three extra eyes watching from the bus, recording everything.
The Wake County Public School System has outfitted 16 school buses with three exterior cameras to capture those who take the risk of passing a stopped bus when the red lights are flashing and the stop sign arm is extended.
North Carolina lawmakers provided $1.38 million in 2013 so that each school district in the state could equip two buses with cameras. Wake County just added 14 more.
“The idea is to get a good image of the vehicle, license plates and the person driving,” said Derek Graham, section chief of N.C. Department of Public Instruction’s transportation services.
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Reports from bus drivers indicate that between 3,000 and 3,500 drivers illegally pass a stopped school bus per day in North Carolina. During the last count on March 18, school bus drivers reported 401 violations in Wake, the state’s largest district with 900 buses.
Since 1999, 13 kids have been killed by motorists who disregarded the school bus stop signs in North Carolina, Graham said. Dozens more have been injured.
It’s not always young students who end up being hit.
“We are seeing more and more middle school and high school kids,” Graham said. “They have to take responsibility, too. If you’re crossing the street with ear buds in or looking down texting – those are added distractions.”
The bus cameras are in protected spheres on the driver’s side of the bus. There is one at the rear facing forward, another above the stop sign facing backwards and the third below the stop sign directed to the side of the bus to capture the motorist’s profile.
The bus driver pushes a button inside the bus to flag the video when a violation occurs and reports it to a supervisor at the end of the day. The footage is reviewed and can be used in court as evidence to prosecute violators.
Motorists who pass a stopped school bus with an extended stop sign pay a minimum fine of $500 and can be charged with a Class 1 misdemeanor, as well as have their license revoked under certain circumstances. It is felony if a student is struck in the process or if a student is killed.
“Hopefully this type of stiff fine or penalty will make people think twice about passing a stopped school bus,” N.C. Highway Patrol Sgt. Michael Baker said Thursday during a demonstration of the technology.
Before cameras, citations were handed out by law enforcement officers who witnessed the violations while on patrol or following a bus in an unmarked car looking for violators. The school bus driver had to appear in court to testify as well, Baker said.
Now the footage can be used as evidence.
Wake County Assistant District Attorney Rashad Hauter said he expects there will be an increase in citations with the new technology.
“Ultimately, I think it will deter people once the system kicks in, and we do a couple of these trials in court,” he said. “People will see the clarity of the images and the quality of the technology being used to prosecute them.”
Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison said he wishes the county had more buses equipped with cameras. For now, the district will move the 16 around to problem routes identified by bus drivers.